Wednesday, August 24, 2011

'Til My Puzzler Was Sore

There's a lot of talk in reactive dog circles right now about allowing the dog to think, make a choice, and then rewarding the heck out of the good choice. It makes sense; dogs, after all, repeat what you reward. I've used this technique with fantastic results with Maus. If I stop and give him time to really analyze a situation, 99% of the time he decides that he's safe and that there's nothing worth reacting that. Recently, I've watched many handlers use the same process and make great progress with their dogs. I've been working with B on making good choices, and I couldn't figure out why we seemed to have stalled out.

I seem to have forgotten that B makes bad choices.

A lot of them.

Very quickly.

I doubt that B even understands that there's a choice to be made: see other dog, throw tantrum until other dog comes over. She's had five years work herself into a habit, and I think that her vision may be so narrow that she doesn't see that there's another, more productive way to behave. Her behavior bypasses her brain altogether. No wonder waiting for B to make the "right choice" wasn't working so well.

Now I know what doesn't work. Important, but not as important as knowing what does work. Think, brain, think.

The cool part about traveling in canine-oriented circles is that inspiration seems to appear when you need it most. For me, a video posted on my friend Apryl's facebook page hit home. B and I went back to basics. We polished up our heel. Most importantly, I increased the rate of reinforcement instead of giving B a chance to "think' about what was going on. If a dog appeared, I shoved a piece of hot dog in her mouth right away, effectively interrupting her stare and refocusing her on me. Then we made progress step by step instead of choice by choice. Less shaping, more luring.

It works. B has made some stellar progress this week. Upping the rate of reinforcement was the big one, I think. B has always had trouble with dogs that weren't behind fences on our walks. But this week, we've been able to pass the house with the big angry dog on a tie out with nary a whine.

Then there was the off-leash beagle. Since stopping classes, the only way for B to be around other dogs is if I take her out on walks. I've pretty much mapped out where all the off-leash dogs are likely to be, and we avoid those areas. But, well, welcome to real life training.

I see the dog about half a block away, take a second to make sure what I'm seeing (because dog on a tie out would be a good training opportunity), and when I'm sure of what I'm seeing, I give B our strategic retreat cue ("runaway, runaway"), and head back the way we came. Rubi doesn't mind this at all. We've practiced retreating a lot when dogs aren't around, so she doesn't associate the cue with other dogs. She's also on squirrel patrol, so she isn't looking behind herself.

Jingle, jingle, jingle.

I look back, and sure enough, while B didn't notice the beagle, the beagle noticed us and is trotting merrily our way. B hasn't heard it yet - she's too engrossed in the possibility of squirrels. I make the strategic decision to turn B around. I do this because I can't outrun anything with four legs, and I'd rather B see the other dog while it's still far enough away for her to be under threshold, instead of having her turn around and, "ZOMG, DOG!"

B sees the other dog, and the instant her ears go up, I pop a piece of hot dog in her mouth. She stares. The beagle freezes. I give B another piece of hot dog. She wags her tail a little. I give her a third piece of hot dog, and she looks at me - then she gets five pieces of hot dog because, yay! We play the auto watch game a few more times, the beagle stays where it is, and I eventually turn B back around and head toward home.

Jingle, jingle, jingle.


I turn B around again and the beagle freezes as B stares. I give her a piece of hot dog. We play the auto watch game again. The beagle isn't coming any closer, but - you guessed it - as soon as we turn away, it starts coming closer again. We stop about three more times, the beagle getting slowly closer until I give up when it's about ten feet away.

By the way, this beagle is my new favorite dog in the neighborhood. Every time B stops and stares, the beagle freezes, turns its head away, and flicks its tongue. Every time B turns away to take a treat, the beagle takes a step closer. Eventually, the beagle gets close enough to sniff B, and I give her a whole fist full of hot dog.

Then I release her to sniff the beagle back. They circle each other, doing the new-doggie dance, while I follow and try to keep B's leash loose. After about eight seconds, I call B's name.

She ignores me.

I take a chance and gently call her again. She turns and wags her tail at me.

I give her half the hot dogs I have left.

We sniff our selves dizzy a while longer, me periodically calling B back, giving her treats, and releasing her. This helps to break her concentration and intensity, and it also reinforces her recall. I'm not going to call her away and ruin her fun. I'm calling her away, giving her tasty treats, and letting her go back. It's a win/win situation from B's perspective.

Once it becomes clear that there isn't going to be any fight, and the beagle is not going to go away and leave us alone, I turn us all around again, and we head back in the direction the beagle came from. We find its frantic owner a block away. She had "just left the gate open for a minute" to water her plants, and when she turned around, the beagle was gone. Uh-huh. But the beagle's owner seems genuinely apologetic, and I'm too pleased with Rubi's behavior to really dig into her.

Progress - we haz it!


  1. How lucky that it was a dog that reads and delivers signals clearly! And good thinking to turn around and not let the dog surprise B as you're trying to escape. Probably what I would have done on impulse and definitely not going to help anyone.

  2. Yay!!! And where are these reactive dog circles and why am I not in them?

    Choice has worked really well for both Jun and Elo. In Elo's reactive dog class, the first couple nights were basically me distracting with food. When I decided to give him a little room to make his own choices and reward them, he got a lot better a lot faster! For Jun, our auto-watch/LAT/BAT hybrid is working well to help her realize she HAS a choice. I don't think she feels any less nervous, but she is starting to make better choices about how to handle it.

    And for all you said about Ruby making bad choices . . . sounds like she made a LOT of good ones on your walk!! I think at some point they HAVE to start making choices, but when it is so hard to get them under threshold, like it was with Elo at first, you have to help them make those choices at first until they start to realize it is a good idea.

  3. What great progress! It's great that you can read her so well.